Meet a Local Leader: Ricardo Cunningham

Dr. Ricardo Cunningham holds a BA/DBA from Anderson University, and an MBA from Indiana Wesleyan University.

His research interests include pedagogical technology, use of talent in business organizations and diversity initiatives.

Cunningham is heavily involved in the Dubuque community, serving as the former director of finance for the Dubuque Dream Center, former vice-chair for the Washington Neighborhood Development Corporation and member of the Dubuque Black Men Coalition.

Can you name a person who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader?

My mom was one of my greatest inspirations and profoundly impacted the leader I am today. My mom practiced what is known as servant leadership. That is when a leader models service to their followers, and in turn, drives them to exhibit the same traits. My mom demonstrated this approach by helping others in her church and community by giving her time, talents and treasure to positively impact people’s lives. True to the impact of servant leadership, I now feel called to follow my mother’s example.

What are the most important decisions you make as a leader of your organization? As a leader within an organization, part of any leader’s job is to make decisions that are true to its mission and drive the organization forward. One place where I’ve done this recently is through the creation and introduction of the Master in Management Organizational Diversity and Inclusion Leadership program. Today’s organizations require strong strategic leaders who understand that their success lies with their workforce and that our workforce is becoming increasingly diverse. We need leaders who understand and can adequately support their employees by building a supportive and inclusive culture.

This idea came to me based on an analysis of the market and a niche that was not filled. The program is in its second year and has reached markets well beyond what I could have imagined. Currently, 60% of my students reside in markets outside of Dubuque, including Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Maryland, Arkansas, New Mexico and Bermuda.

As an organization gets larger, there can be a tendency for the “institution” to dampen the “inspiration.” How do you keep this from happening? The college/university is a unique organization because our product is not only education, but it is also formation. Being inspirational is paramount to the function of the college/university. The ability to inspire students to achieve above and beyond their set of circumstances and guide their decision-making processes is key to our existence. Regardless of size, the college/university has the unique task of inspiring students to become educated in a particular discipline and instill citizenship behaviors that will allow them to further society.

Which is more important to your organization — mission, core values or vision? I would have to say it is a tie between mission and core values. The University of Dubuque is a mission-driven organization. The mission is the glue that binds the collective faculty, staff and students into a shared system of beliefs and norms. The core values are the organization’s oil, the actions and interactions guided by the organization that informs the collective and allows the mission to come to life.

What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess? Integrity, in my opinion, is the backbone of character. Having strong moral principles helps to strengthen resolve and build consensus within your organization. When a dispute arises, people might disagree with your decision, but they will perceive it as fair when you have integrity.

What advice do you have for future leaders? Keep an open mind and listen to your team. There is so much to learn, and so many issues you have to deal with daily; presuming you know every situation and every solution will lead to frustration and inefficiency.

What lessons can leaders take away from the current pandemic? 1. The ability to adapt to the dynamic environment that the pandemic presented.

a. Advances in communication technologies (video conferencing, remote working software) combined with increased Internet access and bandwidth have allowed companies to stay productive. In contrast, employees stay safe working from home. As employers and employees become comfortable with remote work, the stigma of the work-from-home employee will diminish. Technology will likely be leveraged as a cost-saving measure for organizations.

2. Resilience/resolve to see the organization through the crisis.

a. The ability to respond to an unforeseen crisis, such as the pandemic, has tested all organizations and their leaders’ reliance and resolve. Having a crisis management plan that detailed a plan of action that clearly communicated a viable strategy was paramount to successfully navigating through the pandemic.

What are two or three of the best things about being a leader? One of my favorite things about serving as a leader is supporting the development of the people I lead. I genuinely believe that as a leader, I cannot be effective without investing in my team’s growth as a whole. Empowering my team to take calculated risks, providing them the opportunity to learn new skills, and encouraging critical and creative thinking, helps to drive the overall success of the team, makes my job easier and gives individual teammates a sense of accomplishment

People spend a large chunk of their lives at work, and the way people feel about their work environment impacts many other areas of their lives, so why not make it enjoyable? Camaraderie is essential to a positive, engaged and happy workforce. I take pride in learning and knowing my team, their families, and personal situations and encourage them to do the same with their colleagues. I believe that this helps build bonds that transcend the workplace and foster a sense of trust and empathy throughout the team.